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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 1

Optimism Is a Double-Edged Sword in Relationships

General positivity is good but unrealistic expectations about love lead to problems
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HANK OSUNA

Seeing the world through rose-colored glasses is linked with greater satisfaction with one's relationship. Seeing your relationship through those same lenses, on the other hand, can actually lead to less satisfaction, according to a longitudinal study of 61 newlywed couples reported in the July 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study found that for spouses higher in dispositional optimism, a stable personality trait, marital well-being declined less during the first year of marriage. They also took a more positive approach to resolving conflicts, such as trying to define a common goal and brainstorm ways to work toward it. Spouses higher in relationship-specific optimism, however, had greater declines in marital well-being and displayed more negative problem-solving behaviors, such as avoiding tough discussions or trying to suppress their own desires.

The researchers theorize that having unrealistically high expectations of one's relationship can lead to disappointment when even minor conflicts arise and make spouses less likely to respond proactively to difficulties. Study co-author Lisa Neff, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, cautions this finding does not mean pessimism is the way to go. “In my study, no one scored low enough to be considered pessimistic, and I would not expect that to be good for relationships,” she says. “It is great to be optimistic, but keep it at a more realistic level.”

This article was originally published with the title "Dangerous Expectations."

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